Leaving Harlan alive

June 29, 2014 : Tallassee, Tennessee : [ Day 33 ]

Until recently, the adventure of this ride has been wholly in the act of the ride itself – in skipping town to find a new way to live. But in Kentucky, the riding became the adventure.

Boone National Forest

Running gravel in the Boone National Forest, Kentucky

Just getting into Kentucky was a challenge, as the road I followed north from Virginia was mile after mile of narrow switchbacks, literally falling off the mountain in spots. I was creeping along in first gear when I noticed the time – around 7:00 PM. Getting dark soon, with a long way to go. Then it started to rain.

I made it across the mountain and checked the map against the GPS. Still well over a hundred miles to go. On third-gear backroads, there was no way I’d make it before dark. I made an executive decision and opted for US 23, the “Country Music Highway,” to take me north into Prestonsburg. If I have to ride at night, better on a major arterial than some nameless shortcut.

From Prestonsburg, I rode west into the Boone National Forest, where I poked around the Red River Gorge and hooked up with the so-called Kentucky Adventure Trail (KAT), a sort of informal dual-sport ride through coal country put together by some fellow riders. The following photo is a frame grab, click here for the video.

Nada Tunnel

Riding through the Nada Tunnel in the Red River Gorge.

In the Boone National Forest, things got out of hand quickly. There had been a lot of rain recently, so a lot of the lesser roads and trails were badly washed out or reduced to mud pits in low spots. And everything in Kentucky is STEEP.

Dirt bath

The Tiger seems happy with her dirt bath.

I thought I was stuck for sure on one particularly steep, washed-out road, when I was forced to turn around by another impenetrable mud-hole. My loaded bike, now with tires nearing the end of their useful tread life, was having trouble maintaining traction on the loose gravel.

Mud pit

Another road vanishes in mud.

I was cussing like a sailor and sweating profusely trying to steer the Tiger back to good road, when I noticed the check engine light had come on. Sure. Why not. At least it isn’t raining.


Washout. This road is steeper than it looks. You cans see my skid mark (from the way down) to the right of the washout gulley.

I eventually made it out, and found a highway going south. I followed it to Beattysville, listening for odd noises but hearing none. The oil was full, coolant temp normal, by all outward appearances everything seemed fine. But being alone and a long way from home, I had to be sure, so I pulled into an auto parts store and asked the guy to hook up the OBD2 diagnostic tool.

The ABS system gets upset and throws warning lights when the wheels get muddy. That in itself is no big deal, and is expected when riding this bike off-road. But why a check engine light? That I’ve never seen before. The diagnostic tool returned the answer: “Vehicle Speed Sensor A.”

Okay, good. It IS the ABS. I can live with that.

With that little mixup behind me, I hooked up with the KAT again and made a new route into Harlan. Going off of the map, I thought I had a sure way straight into town, but in reality, the road didn’t exist. After a couple of dead ends, a white car started tailing me pretty hard. He followed closely for a few miles before disappearing behind me in some curves. I wasn’t running, the car just stopped.

It was about that time I was cursing the lack of signage to tell the roads apart, when I realized they had been taken down. All of them. Speed limit signs, road signs, marker signs. All gone. Putting two and two together, it was pretty clear that I was somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be.

When I turned around and rode back through the little town, there was a car on the roadside with four guys standing around it. All four of them were wearing full camo, and all four were carrying rifles. One of them waved a peace sign as I rode by. I nodded a return greeting, and waited until I cleared the next corner to crack the throttle open and get the hell out of there.

Harlan County, Kentucky seems like the one little corner of Appalachia where all the ghost stories and legends come from. It’s the only place I’ve been on this journey so far where I got weird vibes, and was constantly just a little bit on edge. That Appalachian character, that certain charm just wasn’t there. In its place was something I can’t quite bring to words.

But I don’t say that to paint Kentucky in a negative light, that is not the point here. If you get the chance to ride there, you should go. It’s a beautiful place, with steep mountains and clear creeks and enough roads and trails to keep a guy busy for a lifetime. The point is, it’s not hard to see that people are hurting, and have been for some time. Every little town has a dollar store, and the people I meet all tell me the same thing – there’s not a lot of work for a guy who wants to stay local. By my guess, coal production is shifting west as well, to the giant pits of Wyoming and Montana. Not to mention our necessary push away from fossil fuels as a power source.

Every good thing comes with a cost.

In a lot of ways, eastern Kentucky reminds me of the so-called Iron Range back home in Minnesota. Boom and bust, adapt or starve. There is room for a new industry in Kentucky, with plenty of hard-working people ready to make it grow. I just wish I knew what that industry was, and I wish I had more to offer in the way of answers.

At the end of the day, it’s still America, and it’s still a great ride.

Kentucky roads

Perfect stretches of backroad abound in eastern Kentucky.

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